My kids are old enough to start playing ball, and weekly practices and physically distanced games are a regular part of the Barkman routine. In high school, I was a catcher, and Christina played third base, so we want our kids to grow into confident athletes. That means they are learning to practice. Continuous repetitions teach my kids how it feels to throw and hit a ball. The unfamiliar is becoming familiar.
This idea is parallel to my experience of learning to pray the psalms since COVID-19 started.
The Psalms are the same prayers Jesus prayed as a young man. Since March 15, I have been praying one a day, and it hasn't been a smooth road for me.
First, it was hard to become comfortable with angry prayers and even violent prayers like Psalm 137. But I learned to take the prayers as a book, not individual psalms. The Book of Psalms shows us a composite picture of God. After learning to embrace the psalms, my next challenge was to own the emotions of these prayers. They make me uncomfortable.
COVID-19 has revealed to many pastors and congregations that people are unhealthy in their spiritual and mental health when isolated. Many people don't have a friend with whom they talk openly, pray vulnerably and act with conviction. Maybe when your marriage is on the rocks or your coworkers treat you like garbage, your brothers and sisters in faith can wrestle it through with you. In my circle, many people don't have those kinds of relationships. The psalms have challenged me to invite and act with more vulnerability in two ways:
- First, praying the psalms is a practice of talking with God about every experience. For example:
Faithful worship in Psalm 71:1: "I've taken refuge in you, Lord; don't let me ever be put to shame!"
Anger and frustration in Psalm 64:2-3: "Hide me from the secret plots of wicked people . . . they aim their arrow—a cruel word—from their hiding places so to shoot an innocent person."
Hatred and the desire for action in Psalm 55:15: "Let death devastate my enemies; let them go to the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them!"
Peace and confidence in God's continuous, faithful presence in Psalm 145:8: "The Lord is merciful and compassionate, very patient, and full of faithful love."
I've needed to learn to practise God's presence in every experience, so all can become holy in God's presence. I've learned to confess that God is here in every moment.
- Second, the psalms challenge me to acknowledge every experience of life publicly.
The psalms are community prayers, not individual ones. No emotion is hidden, and we recognize them all in God's presence. Practising Christlike communal prayer means accepting the reality of our collective experience, including fear, loneliness, celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries, birth and death.
The psalms have stretched me to accept emotions I'm not equipped to process on my own. Now, I'm learning to ask others for their help in praying and thinking about them. With my eyes opened anew, I see God in places that I once thought were too sinful or messy to show his face.
I pray that we bond together across Canada by opening up to one another about our whole-life experience.
Darnell Barkman is vice-moderator of Mennonite Church British Columbia and pastor of Yarrow United Mennonite Church.